Saturday, December 3, 2016

"Competing for victimhood: Why eastern Europe says no to refugees"

[Slovenia, 25 October 2015. Photo: Janossy Gergely / Shutterstock.com. Source: Shutterstock]

A thoughtful and balanced piece of writing from Slavenka Drakulic that helps explain bigotry in that part of the world...

"The constant meetings of EU leaders concerning the refugee crisis in Brussels have not so far yielded any solutions. Decisions and documents, yes, but the question remains how many of these are going to be implemented in reality. One of the reasons is that former communist states in eastern Europe are more or less openly defying a common approach, in particular the sharing of the burden of refugees through quotas.

Until recently it seemed that eastern and western Europeans were getting closer, that the new EU member states were slowly adapting to western democratic standards not only in form, but also in practice and mentality. 

But the refugee crisis has demonstrated how deep the division among Europeans still is. Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia reject quotas, Bulgaria was first to build a fence along its border with Turkey, Romania is not offering refugees safe havens either, and Slovenia and Croatia claim lack of capacity, while also lacking the will to keep them. 

It looks as if Poland, with its newly elected government, will reinforce this defiance. Not to mention countries outside the EU: if Serbia and Albania are willing to perhaps show a kinder face to refugees while guiding them towards western borders, it is with an eye on possible membership of the Union. Macedonia is in the worst situation, penniless, overrun and desperate. It is obvious that these states are not very eager to, or capable of, demonstrating solidarity, to say the least." 

Read more from source at Eurozine here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Join me in conversation at a workshop

This Thursday afternoon...

"Why We are Losing Our Children & How We Can Get Them Back."

I will be leading a Parenting/Education Workshop near Sitges-Vilanova this Thursday 1st of December at 4.15.

Venue: The Olive Tree School, RAMBLA DEL GARRAF 21
Sant Pere de Ribes.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Video: "TV talk: Trump, Catalan language and Leonard Cohen"

http://www.elpuntavui.tv/video/192005057.html



This week I was once again a guest on Matthew Tree's panel show "Our Finest Hour." We discussed Donald Trump, where Catalan is and is not able to be spoken in Catalonia and Leonard Cohen, before a live performance by Guillem Gené of Cohen's song "Bird on a Wire."

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"Albania's pain" - My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine

[A middle class Albanian family Photo: PETER MENZEL, FAMILIES OF THE WORLD.]

When I was a curly-haired (and more ignorant) twelve year old in the Cold War years of the early 1980s, one day our History teacher asked the class a general knowledge question: “Who is the world’s longest-serving current dictator?”

Nobody had the correct answer, though Chairman Mao was one of the few responses from the students. Mr Lamb (yes, that was my teacher's name) gave us some helpful clues. “Come on now! He’s been in power since 1944 and he’s not from Asia.” But still, there was no idea running through the developing minds of those in the group. “It’s the Communist leader, Hoxha. Enver Hoxha in Albania,” he told us and wrote this strange sounding name on the board.

A decade and a half later (after French-educated Hoxha had been dead for almost ten years) I started to develop a morbid fascination with this country - a place the wider world knew little about. I read Paul Theroux’s harrowing account of a few weeks he spent travelling there and from a ferry leaving Greece I saw part of its coast: rough, dry and barren of buildings. I discovered that both Albania’s past, equally as much as its present, beggars belief and this pulled me into its orbit.

By the time Hoxha had been claimed by diabetes at the age of seventy six, his regime had modernised the economy in a classically Communist way: at a huge cost to the lives of its citizens. All across Albania, vicious historical blood feuds between families raged on and on unchecked and Hoxha’s secret police, the “sigourmi,” used networks of ordinary people as informers on their workmates and neighbours. Tens of thousands were jailed or disappeared (often in the kind of nightmarish circumstances that could come straight out of a Kafka story) and it’s estimated that up to twenty percent of the population were killed or died in forced labour.

When Hoxha’s supposed “worker’s paradise” came to an end there was a long, widespread orgy of general destruction of public property including factories. Combined with mass unemployment, severe shortages of food and fuel meant that the winter cold froze many people to death. Thousands of badly-needed professionals and working age men and women are still escaping to try to find work in neighbouring Greece or taking the short ferry to an often equally poverty-stricken existence in Italy. Some are going further away, including to Britain.

But even the years before Hoxha were no less bizarre. Albania’s King Zog, who survived five assassination attempts, married an aristocratic half-American woman (having seen her in a photo.) The Albanian parliament insisted on seeing the bloody nightgown from her wedding night, as proof of her virginity. Their giant-sized only son Prince Leka moved to Spain, where he trained exiles for a planned guerilla war against Hoxha. Leka’s combat practice became too much even for Franco’s government and the prince’s former royal playmate Juan Carlos was requested to ask Leka and his tribe to leave the country in the mid 1970s. He then took up residence in South Africa and hung around with the King of Zululand after marrying an Australian citizen and former teacher named Susan.

Meanwhile Albania was falling apart slowly. To see the country today is to witness corruption on a scale that makes Greece, Italy or Spain look like amateurish. Because of threats to their lives, the Prosecutor General Adriatik Llalla was recently forced to send his pregnant wife and two children to live in another European country. On top of this, environmentalist groups say they fear Albania will become Europe’s dumping site now that the national government has agreed to take other countries recycling waste.

Albania has some of our continent’s most spectacular scenery and quiet beaches. It has been predicted to become the next big thing in tourism for many of the last few years but somehow it is still largely neglected.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, November 2016.]


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Free rail passes for young Europeans?

[©AP Images/ European Union-EP]
"Young Europeans are on track to receive a free InterRail pass on their 18th birthday in the future. Members of the European Parliament [MEPs] discussed the proposal and overwhelmingly supported it during a debate in plenary on 4 October. 

Millions of young European have travelled throughout the continent using Interrail over the last few decades, but the pass itself can cost up to hundreds of euros.

Interrail is a pass allowing people to travel across Europe’s rail network freely. Users can use it to travel wherever they like on the continent.

Some 300,000 people use InterRail passes to travel across Europe every year.   An InterRail pass cost ranges between €20 and €480 for a month-long pass.
"


Read more from source here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

"Catalonia drops psychiatric test for transexuals"

[Healthcare reform activists from 'TRANSforma la Salut' in October press conference. Photo: Ferran Sendra / El Periódico]

 "• Move announced as part of a desire to ‘de-pathologise’ transexuality
 

• Special unit set up in Barcelona to handle all gender identity healthcare needs

The regional health service in...Catalonia has dropped its controversial requirement for individuals seeking a medical gender change to first undergo psychiatric evaluation, removing what transgender and LGBT activists in Spain have long protested as a stigmatization that equates homosexuality and the desire for gender change with mental illness.

[Catalan] health minister Antoni Comín announced Monday that individuals experiencing gender identity disorder over the sexual identity they were assigned at birth and who seek hormone treatment or surgery through the...health service will no longer be treated as though they have a mental disorder prior to undergoing therapy.

As part of Catalonia’s push to “de-pathologise” healthcare related to sexual identity and gender change, Comín said, a new multi-disciplinary specialist Gender Identity Unit (GIU) has been established at Barcelona’s Manso primary healthcare center to meet the specific needs of individuals undergoing hormone therapy and sex-change surgery.

Currently, there are 437 people at different stages of sex-change treatment within the Catalan health system, with 93 new applications each year from individuals seeking initial hormonal treatment of two years prior to being placed on the waiting list for sex-change surgery."

Source: here.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

"THE TURKISH SEPHARDIM OF SAN ANTONIO MARKET, BARCELONA, 1900–1945"

"[This] article offers an historical anthropological study of a little-known, mostly Turkish-Sephardi population that settled in Barcelona at the beginning of the twentieth century, attracted by the commercial dynamism of the area around the San Antonio Market. 

The complete disappearance of the community in the early 1940s has made it more difficult to reconstruct its history than is the case with some other Jewish communities in Spain. 

Through oral history testimonies and the location of several dispersed sources, this article provides new ethnographic and historical information that contributes to recovering the memory of this Jewish community. 

The study is also an attempt to explain the reasons behind the departure of most of the community's members in the early 1940s, after more than 20 years of settlement and integration in the city of Barcelona. 

It shows how the new conditions introduced by the Francoist authorities had a direct impact on the ability of community members to make a living. 

The restrictions forced them first to ask for help from the international organizations which were helping European refugees and ultimately to leave the country."

Read more from source article here.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Corbyn is right. Migrants don’t drive down wages"

"In his recent speech to Labour Party conference Jeremy Corbyn said, “It isn’t migrants that drive down wages, it’s exploitative employers and the politicians who deregulate the labour market and rip up trade union rights.” 

This is...entirely correct. It is probably the best statement ever made by a Labour leader on this issue.
It used to be regularly argued, and not just by far right or fascist groups, that immigrant workers take British workers' jobs. This has more recently been supplanted with the notion that migrant labour has driven down wages. Both are equally wrong.

The claims that immigrants take jobs became harder to sustain as the level of the overseas migrant population reached record highs in Britain at the same time as a record high level of employment overall and a record high for employment of UK-born workers. 


Even so, the most recent Tory party conference tried to revive the racist claims, with lists of foreign workers, removing overseas doctors from the NHS and prioritising immigration controls over economic prosperity. Some of these have already fallen apart while they would all be deeply damaging to the UK economy, as well as fanning the flames of racism.
In fact, as shown in Chart 1 [above] the record number of migrant workers now coincides with a record employment rate for workers in the UK. 


Since the beginning of 1997 the number of migrant (non-UK born) workers in the UK has risen from just under 2 million to nearly 5.5 million in mid-2016. At the same time the employment rate of workers in the UK has risen from 70.8% to 74.5%, a new all-time high (the unemployment rate is also close to its all-time low at 4.9%). No-one is having their job taken by a migrant worker."

Read more from source here.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Video: Latest appearance on a panel program

[http://www.elpuntavui.tv/programes/english-hour.html]
Last night I was once again a guest on Matthew Tree's TV round table discussion show, Our Finest Hour

Along with the authors Simon Harris and Carmen Amorós we talked about (in reverse order) Russia and the bombing of Aleppo, Donald Trump (of course,) far-right and anti-Fascist groups demonstrating on the Spanish National Day, the Catalan towns that defied central government orders to close council offices on this same holiday and [a pet subject of mine]...Albania!

Friday, October 7, 2016

"Cohencentric" - My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine

Finishing a long biography of the long, long life of the singer/songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, something occurred to me the other day. 

Here was a man who had toiled away on his work year after year, suffering from regular periods of depression, only to become commercially successful across the globe after the age of sixty.

Cohen had been a well-known figure in his native Canada and much of Europe since the 1970s but that massive market of the USA had largely ignored the richly dark and sombre images that filled his music and writing; this despite the fact that he has lived in California on and off for most of his now eighty one years on the planet.

What I admire, just as much as the penetrating insight of his wordcraft, is Cohen’s resilience against the storms of our existence (his father died when he was only eight years old) and his resolute persistence in being the artist that he wanted to be. He was, and most probably still is, an extremely generous man who rarely took on the egotistical trappings of the standard popstar.

After being born into a wealthy family, he always lived in small houses and in fact spent many years of disciplined silence and contemplation in a Buddhist monastery. Over time, he learned to embrace his own imperfections and saw that this was how the universe is constructed too. 

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” he wrote: a phrase now used by a number of psychologists to counsel their patients.

For much of his free time though, Cohen had been a womaniser and used drugs such as speed and alcohol to keep him going but in his later years the love of a wonderful woman collaborator helped him find a satisfaction and contentment that eludes so many of us in middle-age. 

More than almost any other contemporary singer, he was intent on bringing female singers from the background into sharing centre stage in his recordings and his songs benefit greatly from this.

Around the same time he had every dollar of his earnings stolen by a former lover (whom he had trusted) and an accountant who exploited her. After years of gruelling court cases he was able to get back some of his money but reluctantly, he went back on the road to tour again after a decade and a half of avoiding playing to live audiences. 

To his surprise, this time he loved it in a way he never had before. The wider public loved it too, as shown by his sell-out world tours since 2007 (that included Zaragoza-born band member Javier Mas.)

Always a spiritual man and often superstitious (his outlook combined his family’s Judaism with aspects of Hinduism and a taste for bible myths) today, he remains an inspiration to writers and musicians as diverse as Judy Collins and Jeff Buckley. 

There are over three thousand versions of his songs recorded by other artists. One of the most beautiful songs of the twentieth century was at least partly written about Leonard Cohen. I must have listened hundreds of times to the soaring vocals of Joni Mitchell in “A Case of You”:

“On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
And I sketched your face on it twice.”


[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, October 2016.]

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Polish Pro-Choice Protest Movement Prepares Nationwide Strike [today] 'Black Monday' "

"Poland is readying for a massive general strike on October 3, as part of the next stage of a protest movement against legislation strengthening the national ban on abortion. Activists in Germany are also preparing solidarity actions.

Polish women's rights activists announced a nationwide strike of female workers intended to bring Polish society and the economy to a standstill on October 3.

The strike is a continuation of the “Black Protest”, a massive reaction to the government's latest plan to increase the severity of the anti-abortion law by including stipulations such as five-year prison terms for both women abortion patients — including rape victims — and doctors.

The first phase of the protests involved digital activism, with people expressing their disagreement with the proposed law by posting photos of themselves dressed in black, using the hashtags #czarnyprotest (“#BlackProtest,” found here on Facebook and Twitter) and #blackprotest (Facebook, Twitter).

After the Polish Parliament proceeded with consideration of the controversial legislative proposal on September 23, activists responded with massive demonstrations in tens of Polish cities as well as in several other cities around the world the following weekend.

Right-wing national-conservative party PiS (“Law and Justice”) holds a majority in the parliament and has the backing of the Catholic Church. 

Its lawmakers also voted to dismiss another piece of legislation that would have liberalized existing laws. Proposed by the “Save Women” pro-choice coalition, and supported by a petition with 150,000 signatures, it would have allowed for legal abortions up until the 12th week of pregnancy."


Read more from source at Global Voices here.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

"Hungarian anti-Semitic leader moves to Israel after discovering he is a Jew"

[Photo: Reuters]
"A leader of a Hungarian far-right party is planning to move to Israel after discovering his Jewish heritage. 

Csanad Szegedi, 34, former leader of the Jobbik party who have been previously accused of Neo-Nazism, is preparing to make aliya and move to Israel four years after leaving the nationalist party when he discovered his Jewish roots and that his grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.

Szegedi who was known for his extremist positions and anti-Semitic statements, helped found the Hungarian Guard, who wore black uniforms reminiscent of the notorious pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party that ruled Hungary briefly in the Second World War and rounded-up hundreds of thousands of Jews to be sent to the gas chambers.
In 2012, he described how "shocked" he was at the news of his grandmother and his Jewish heritage, adding: "First of all because I realised the Holocaust really happened."
Quickly, Szegedi rejected his far-right past and embraced Judaism, including taking a Hebrew name Dovid, regularly attending synagogue, eating kosher food and getting circumcised, and is now planning on moving to Israel with his family."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

"What can Spain do to tackle its growing suicide problem?"

"Suicides have hit a record high for a third year running, and are Spain’s main cause of unnatural death...

Experts call for a national strategy to curb the rising number of people taking their own lives."

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"4 maps that [might] change how you see migration in Europe"

"Did you know that Polish people represent the highest percentage of the foreign-born population in Norway? 

Or that the largest proportion of immigrants to the Republic of Ireland hail from the UK?


These four maps, created by Jakub Marian, a Czech linguist, mathematician and artist, are based on a 2015 study by the United Nations on international migration. 

They show European migration split into various numbers: 


1. The percentage of the population of each country that is made up of foreign-born migrants 


2. The most common country of origin for that number


3. Whether that number has gone up or down in the past five years


4. The immigrant populations that are expanding the most."

Read more from source here.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

"On trust and the grape" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

People trust each other where I live. 

I'm not talking about the kind of confidence where no one needs to lock their doors. I mean that where I live you don't see that look of suspicion in the eyes of a stranger that you consistently do in England, for example.

There seems to be a basic belief that the men and women next to you are not out to cheat you or somehow do you wrong. 

And this is despite acts of terrorism, theft and selfish outlooks on daily display, in addition to a mainstream media that feeds on reporting crime. 

Of course this unstated faith is regularly abused. Maybe routinely so. Yet it continues.
 
We used to live on the outskirts of Vilafranca del Penedès, a medium sized town of about 40,000 people in the agricultural interior of Catalonia. Behind our apartment building there are large grapevine plantations and paths running through them. Every day people walk there, jog, or take their dogs for exercise.
 
But there are no fences. It would be easy and cheap to put fences around these fields but nobody has felt this to be necessary. Thousands of euros of vineyards lie apparently unattended for short periods of time and these vines are of course unguarded.
 
If this was in, say Israel or near an English town would it be the same? My guess is no.
 
There are also no fences in the little village we have chosen to live in since moving a handful of kilometres away from Vilafranca. The grape is still the dominant feature in the landscape and our house looks onto fields of vines: verdant green in summer and bare brown after October. 

I find it impossible to walk through these fields with their soothing geometrical lines and not feel better than I did before.
 
Maybe this is partly why the farmers I talk to seem to be a contented bunch. Despite absurdly low prices for their quality produce it's apparent that they enjoy what they do. I know several who voluntarily work into a very ripe old age, tending to the simplicity of cultivating plants in what the French call an industry of pleasure. Give a man a job that is he is satisfied with and he is halfway to being happy.
 
Recently though, the basic confidence that the average European has in those around him or her is sadly being tested and is also being shaken. 

Terrorism by fanatics, extremists and the ultra-marginalised is mainly responsible for this but so far Spain and Catalonia have resisted seeing right wing political parties as a possible answer to the various forms of random slaughter that have continued across the continent (and for that matter, much of the world.) 

I suspect however, that all those healthy fields of green and red grapes will stay unaffected and untouched by the sadistic joy of small-minded egotists intent on mass-murder.

(This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, September 2016.)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

"A Little-Known Perspective on the Life of Homeless People in France — Their Own"

(Tents from charity ‘Les Enfants de Don Quichotte’ on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin, Paris. From Wikipedia Creative Commons 2.0`)



















"There are many preconceived ideas about the lives of the homeless in France. The most widespread amongst them are as follows:
  • “It's a declining trend in France.”
The total number of homeless people in France (excluding refugees in the camps in Calais) is difficult to estimate, but the FNARS, a national organisation for social inclusion and re-insertion, estimates the figure to be between 150,000 and 240,000 people. The Fondation Abbé Pierre, a homeless charity based on the benevolence of its namesake, a 20th century Catholic priest, estimates that there are 50% more homeless people in France than three years ago — including 30,000 children.
  • “To be homeless is an active choice.”
A study shows that only 6% of homeless people choose to live on the streets.
  • “The homeless don't work.”
Many homeless people are employed on fixed-term or temporary contracts.

In an attempt to correct the narrative about the homeless, some homeless people in France over the years have told their stories in their own words on social media. Let's meet three of them: Stéphane, Francis and ‘SDF75′, who all have at one point offered insight into their lives on their respective blogs.

‘I am a computer programmer first and a homeless person second’

SDF75 explained why he wanted to create a different blog:


Read more from source at Global Voices here.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"The world's movement of people – in one map"



"The world is experiencing the biggest displacement of people since the Second World War, with more than 22 million displaced from their home countries. More than 1 million people arrived in Europe in 2015 alone. 

This map, posted on metrocosm.com and based on estimates from the UN Population Division, gives a remarkable insight into the extent of global migration.

It shows the estimated net migration by origin and destination between 2010 and 2015. Each yellow dot represents 1,000 people, while blue dots indicate positive net migration, and red negative net migration."

Read more from source here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Welcome to Sunny Barcelona, Where the Government Is Embracing Coops, Citizen Activism, and Solar Energy"

 “When we moved into city hall, there were only paintings by men,” Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau tweeted in March, attaching a picture of her current office wall, which now featured portraits of eight prominent Catalan women—including the legendary anarchist leader Federica Montseny.

“Redecorating the walls, that was the easy change,” Colau’s second in command, Gerardo Pisarello, joked when we spoke with him in late June. “The other ones take quite a bit longer—they are more difficult and don’t just depend on us.” Pisarello’s office, too, features black-and-white photographs: one of a woman celebrating the proclamation of Spain’s Second Republic in 1931, and another taken at the country’s first LGBT protest after dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, a demonstration that, as Pisarello proudly points out, happened in Barcelona. 

Colau and her team were unexpectedly swept into the mayor’s office in May 2015. Barcelona en Comú (“Barcelona in Common”), the progressive political platform Colau and others founded less than a year before the elections, won by the narrowest of margins, with a mere 11 of the 41 seats in the city’s council. It was just enough to form a minority government. 

Still, the BeC platform—a coalition that includes the Catalan branch of Spain’s new anti-austerity party Podemos, the United Left, and the Catalan Green Party—has faced a difficult challenge. Their aspiration is not just to alleviate the severe social and economic consequences of the Great Recession. They also want to reinvent how city government functions, from the ground up.

“I think what’s happening in Barcelona is unique,” Laura Roth, who teaches political science at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and runs BeC’s neighborhood assembly for Ciutat Vella, says. “There are struggles everywhere. There are movements everywhere. Some are more democratic and others are less democratic. Some are more active and successful and others are less. But I think that there aren’t many movements today that are rethinking how to do politics.” 

Read more from source at The Nation here.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Europats:" citizen's representation across Europe










"EUROPATS is a new initiative to call for Full Rights for all European Citizens, to represent those Europeans who reside in other EU countries which are not their own; to ensure that their voices are heard and to champion their rights in Brussels as well as other centres of political influence at a national, regional and local level.

EUROPATS was started in June 2016 when the UK voted to leave the EU.  EUROPATS stands for all disenfranchised Europeans living in the EU."


Read more from source here.